VHF Radio Your Offshore Lifesaver

VHF Radio: How To Use, Make Calls, & Assist Others

The VHF Radio can be a lifesaver for boaters (and offshore anglers)--but only if you know how to use it properly.

Have you ever owned a piece of equipment on your boat that you knew was essential but never used it because you didn't know how, and you were embarrassed to ask?

Such a case became apparent to me one day when a 24-foot tunnel-drive boat was stuck high-and-dry on a river sandbar. I mean this fellow was frantically shuffling around his vessel in ankle-deep water, dismayed and not knowing what to do.

I attempted to come to his assistance but couldn't get too close out of fear of entering into the same predicament. After careful maneuvering, he managed to hand me a rope and I attempted to pull him off the sandbar, but to no avail.

Seeing the critical nature of the situation - not being very far off the main thoroughfare of the Mississippi River, which is heavily traveled by ships and crewboats - I asked if he had called and reported the situation to the Coast Guard. At that point he embarrassingly evaded the question. The irony of the matter was he had a VHF radio aboard, but hadn't bothered to radio for help despite being stranded there for over an hour.

To make a long story short, it only took a simple call to the Coast Guard using my VHF radio before he received assistance from a nearby crewboat.

Situations like this are needlessly repeated time and again because of boaters being unacquainted with certain safety equipment. Also, some find themselves in such a situation simply by thinking it will never happen to them.

The VHF radio is obviously the most important communication link you have aboard your vessel since it can prove to be a lifesaver. However, it can only be such if it is in good operating condition and if you know how to properly use it. Unequivocally, no boat owner should leave the dock without it.

When was the last time you either used your radio or tested its ability to transmit and receive? Maybe you have been one of the unfortunate to find out the answer to that question when left stranded in no-man's land. The simple fact is some boaters have found that even with a radio in seemingly good working order they still experience difficulty reaching other boats or the Marine Operator.

On the other hand, never conclude that your radio must be in good working order simply because of a radio check. For example, it's to be noted that the Coast Guard can be reached with minimal wattage since they are equipped with special systems to do so. Therefore a radio check by means of them or other boats can be deceiving.

Making a VHF radio transmit and receive efficiently can be accomplished legally by only two means: (1) using a higher db gain antenna, and (2) increasing the height of the antenna.

Economically speaking, the latter is the best approach if your boat is long enough so that the antenna does not protrude past the transom too far once laid down. The simple fact is that when antenna height is increased, it yields better "line of sight," which is the key ingredient in transmitting and receiving a radio signal. Thus, the addition of an antenna extension will substantially increase VHF radio performance at a minimal investment.

The placement of the antenna is also important, so choose an area that is above and clear of metal obstructions. Keep in mind that the addition of an antenna extension may also warrant the use of additional coaxial cable.

A higher db gain antenna will further achieve greater distances, especially when coupled with an extension. But higher db gain antennas can costly and are considerably longer than the norm to begin with. So, a proper base mount and support will be essential when making the transition in either case.

Another problem VHF radio owners have to contend with is water damage to their unit due to rain, saltwater spray or freshwater spray when washing the boat down. Some VHF radios are vhf radio water-resistant, not waterproof. If you do happen to own one that is waterproof, the following tips won't be necessary because you will be able to mount your radio anywhere that is convenient.

You can virtually eliminate the water spray problem by taking a piece of heavy gauge clear vinyl and cutting it out to form a cover for the front area of your radio. You can use the radio mounting knobs to hold it in place if you make it wide enough so that it folds down along the sides. A paper punch or razor-knife will easily cut and make the needed size holes to accommodate the knob screws. Surprisingly, this clear vinyl cover, when used on radios with front speakers, can actually improve speaker volume and clarity in many cases.

Once the radio and cover are in position, place it in the mounting bracket which will retain both the cover and radio. This, of course, will not make your radio submersible, but if properly done, it will easily be protected from hose or saltwater sprays.
As earlier illustrated, some boat owners who have VHF radios may not be familiar with the proper procedure to call someone. First of all, keep in mind that the FCC no longer requires users (recreational US users) to obtain a license for transmitting or receiving calls. (See "Note" Below)

In any case, here's the procedure to call, for example, the Coast Guard. You might say: "This is motor vessel (your name), (your call sign {if license required}) to (unit name) Coast Guard." This is done on channel 16, which is the National Calling and Distress channel. After reply contact is made, you will be requested to move to Channel 22A (the US Coast Guard working channel) for further communication.

You will also use Channel 16 to establish contact with another pleasure boat or a commercial vessel, but once the contact is made you must switch to either Channel 68, 69 or 70 for pleasure boats or to one of the frequencies assigned to commercial vessel traffic to talk.

Before cellular telephones became popular and affordable, boaters could also use their VHF radios to make telephone calls from their boats. This was done by calling the marine operator on Channel 16 and then asking the operator to place the call. Once the operator made contact with the party you were calling, she would give you a "go ahead" and asked the receiving party to standby.

There are two things which make VHF radio calls awkward for beginners. The first is having to remember to say "over" when you finished your sentence, and the second is remembering to release the microphone button so that you can hear the other party. Of course nowadays personal calls can be more easily made with the use of a cellular phone, even though you can use your VHF radio to contact the marine operator to do the same.

Cellular phones also make a lot of boaters ask whether they even need to install a VHF radio on the vessel. The answer is a short and simple, "Yes." While cellular phones are great for calling home or taking that occasional business call while fishing, it's not as dependable as VHF in emergencies.

The key here is the fact that not only does the U.S. Coast Guard monitor Channel 16 on a 24-hour basis, but all commercial vessels are required to have their radios on Channel 16. So, if you are fishing in the marshes and your boat breaks down, someone will inevitably hear a call for help over a VHF radio and you don't have to worry about being in a "dead zone" like might occur with the use of your cellular phone.

By Jerry LaBella

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